That Lit­tle Room Which They Have Taken For Her

New England Review - - Table of Contents - Reader's Note­book Rachel Hadas

Early last sum­mer, I had oc­ca­sion to con­sult the episode in Mar­cel Proust's Re­mem­brance of Things Past in which the nar­ra­tor re­vis­its Bal­bec af­ter the death of his grand­mother. This well-known pas­sage de­scribes a rush of tears to the nar­ra­tor's eyes—tears whose source he has to search his mem­ory to find. What he re­al­izes is that he has just been be­lat­edly mourn­ing the grand­mother whose death hadn't re­ally hit him un­til now.

Even af­ter I'd found the spe­cific pas­sage I'd been look­ing for, it wasn't easy to close the book and (as a phrase nearly as an­noy­ing as the word “clo­sure” would have it) move on. Soon, in the vicin­ity of the ac­count of these tears, I came upon a longer pas­sage I hadn't re­mem­bered as well. In a haunt­ing se­quence, the nar­ra­tor, still reel­ing from the shock of his be­lated grasp of the fact that his grand­mother has died, dreams about her. In his dream she is both dead and not dead.

This un­set­tlingly apt de­scrip­tion (I'll quote it soon) of the way a dream presents an in­di­gestible re­al­ity was still much in my mind a few weeks later, when I found my­self in my coun­try house rum­mag­ing through pa­pers. I was sift­ing through some fold­ers of work I'd dis­carded or left un­fin­ished—po­ems twenty years old, from the late 1980s and early 1990s. One short poem stopped me. It had nei­ther ti­tle nor date, but I could eas­ily tell more or less when I had writ­ten it, for the poem recorded a dream that had clearly pre­saged my mother's death. Her can­cer had been di­ag­nosed in Novem­ber 1990, and my dream pre­ceded the di­ag­no­sis by only a few days or weeks. In­deed, the dream's tim­ing may well have been oc­ca­sioned by some tests my mother was un­der­go­ing. I re­mem­ber that when, af­ter the last of these tests, the doc­tor in­formed me that my mother had a tu­mor, I told him I'd dreamed she was dy­ing of can­cer. As I re­call, he seemed more in­ter­ested than sur­prised or skep­ti­cal. Per­haps such pre­scient dreams are not so un­com­mon.

Some­how, brought to light about twenty years af­ter I had first writ­ten it, my lit­tle poem seemed more worth pre­serv­ing than some of the oth­ers I'd turned up in the same folder. I gave it a ti­tle and tight­ened its orig­i­nal eleven lines to nine.

Sub­ter­ranean A gate that had been open closed be­hind me. Light was stream­ing into a low-ceilinged bed­room bare but for the bed and a sort of throne

on which I sat to hear the news from the re­cum­bent fig­ure calm in the face of obliv­ion, hands folded. She told the end her­self. The gate, the tun­nel, the dark dais, all had been lead­ing to­ward the one con­clu­sion.

All her life, my mother was a com­posed, ret­i­cent, and dig­ni­fied per­son. The dream, as pre­served in the am­ber of the poem, has a static, for­mal, al­most hi­er­atic qual­ity; em­blem­atic or heraldic are other ad­jec­tives that come to mind. The re­cum­bent fig­ure re­calls fu­ner­ary sculp­ture—knights and their ladies ly­ing in ef­figy, or Greek grave steles, or Egyp­tian stat­ues. In keep­ing with the para­dox­i­cal pair­ing of feel­ings that such rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the dead all seem to evoke— feel­ings about death that all peo­ple prob­a­bly share—my mother, in the poem as in the dream, is some­how both alive and not alive. In or­der to reach her, I have to go un­der­ground, pass­ing through a tun­nel (not men­tioned in the poem) and then a gate to reach the dim, low-ceilinged cham­ber where she is ly­ing. Yet ly­ing as if en­tombed, she is also able to re­ceive me as a vis­i­tor and talk to me calmly and co­gently—which was pre­cisely how my mother nearly al­ways talked. Her hands are folded heraldically across her chest; she seems al­most like a statue of her­self—and yet she is still my (barely) liv­ing mother.

Here now is the Proust pas­sage:

But as soon as I had suc­ceeded in fall­ing asleep, at that more truth­ful hour when my eyes closed to the things of the outer world, the world of sleep (on whose fron­tier my in­tel­li­gence and my will, mo­men­tar­ily paral­ysed, could no longer strive to res­cue me from the cru­elty of my real im­pres­sions) re­flected, re­fracted the ag­o­nis­ing syn­the­sis of sur­vival and an­ni­hi­la­tion, once more re­formed, in the or­ganic and translu­cent depths of the mys­te­ri­ously lighted vis­cera. The world of sleep in which our in­ner con­scious­ness, sub­or­di­nated to the dis­tur­bances of our or­gans, ac­cel­er­ates the rhythm of the heart or the res­pi­ra­tion, be­cause the same dose of ter­ror, sor­row or re­morse acts with a strength mag­ni­fied a hun­dred fold if it is thus in­jected into our veins: as soon as, to tra­verse the ar­ter­ies of the sub­ter­ranean city, we have em­barked upon the dark cur­rent of our own blood as upon an in­ward Lethe me­an­der­ing six­fold, tall solemn forms ap­pear to us, ap­proach and glide away, leav­ing us in tears. I sought in vain for my grand­mother's form when I had en­tered be­neath the som­bre por­tals; yet I knew that she did ex­ist still, if with a di­min­ished vi­tal­ity, as pale as that of mem­ory; the dark­ness was in­creas­ing, and the wind; my fa­ther, who was to take me to her, had not yet ar­rived. Sud­denly my breath failed me, I felt my heart turn to stone; I had just re­mem­bered that for weeks on end I had for­got­ten to write to my grand­mother. What must she be think­ing of me? “Oh God,” I said to my­self, “how wretched she must be in that lit­tle room which they have taken for her, no big­ger than what one would give to an old ser­vant, where she's all alone with the nurse they have put there to look af­ter her, from which she can­not stir, for she's still slightly paral­ysed and has al­ways re­fused to get up! She must think that I've for­got­ten her now that she's dead; how lonely she must be feel­ing, how de­serted! Oh, I must hurry to see her, I mustn't lose a minute, I can't wait for my fa­ther to come—but where is it? How can I have for­got­ten the ad­dress? Will she know me again, I won­der? How can I have for­got­ten her all

these months? It's so dark, I shan't be able to find her; the wind is hold­ing me back; but look! there's my fa­ther walk­ing ahead of me . . . .” I call out to him: “Where is grand­mother? Tell me her ad­dress. Is she all right? Are you quite sure she has ev­ery­thing she needs?” “Yes, yes,” says my fa­ther, “you needn't worry. Her nurse is well trained. We send her a lit­tle money from time to time, so that she can get your grand­mother any­thing she may need. She some­times asks what's be­come of you. She was told you were go­ing to write a book. She seemed pleased. She wiped away a tear.” And then I seemed to re­mem­ber that shortly af­ter her death, my grand­mother had said to me, sob­bing, with a hum­ble look, like an old ser­vant who has been given no­tice, like a stranger: “You will let me see some­thing of you oc­ca­sion­ally, won't you; don't let too many years go by without vis­it­ing me. Re­mem­ber that you were my grand­son, once, and that grand­moth­ers never for­get.” And see­ing again that face of hers, so sub­mis­sive, so sad, so ten­der, I wanted to run to her at once and say to her, as I ought to have said to her then: “Why, grand­mother, you can see me as of­ten as you like, I have only you in the world, I shall never leave you any more.” What tears my si­lence must have made her shed through all those months in which I have never been to the place where she is ly­ing! What can she have been say­ing to her­self? And it is in a voice choked with tears that I too shout to my fa­ther: “Quick, quick, her ad­dress, take me to her.” But he says: “Well . . . I don't know whether you will be able to see her. Be­sides, you know, she's very frail now, very frail, she's not at all her­self, I'm afraid you would find it rather painful. And I can't re­mem­ber the ex­act num­ber of the av­enue.” “But tell me, you who know, it's not true that the dead have ceased to ex­ist. It can't pos­si­bly be true, in spite of what they say, be­cause grand­mother still ex­ists.” My fa­ther smiles a mourn­ful smile: “Oh, hardly at all, you know, hardly at all. I think it would be bet­ter if you didn't go. She has ev­ery­thing that she wants. They come and keep the place tidy for her.” “But is she of­ten alone?” “Yes, but that's bet­ter for her. It's bet­ter for her not to think, it could only make her un­happy. Think­ing of­ten makes peo­ple un­happy. Be­sides, you know, she is quite life­less now. I shall leave a note of the ex­act ad­dress, so that you can go there; but I don't see what good you can do, and I don't sup­pose the nurse will al­low you to see her.”

In 1977 and 1978 my hus­band Ge­orge and I were reread­ing Proust more or less in tan­dem, com­par­ing notes, div­ing into the text and emerg­ing with trea­sures. At the time, we rec­og­nized his mirac­u­lous pen­e­tra­tion of the end­less lay­ers of hu­man na­ture—or we thought we did. But what did we know? We were con­cen­trat­ing on Proust's in­sights about art or love rather than mor­tal­ity or grief, not that any ter­ri­bly firm bound­aries dis­tin­guish these themes. Ge­orge's mother's stroke and pro­longed dis­abil­ity, my mother's short ill­ness and death, and Ge­orge's grad­ual de­cline, in­sid­i­ous and (as one neu­rol­o­gist called it) in­do­lently paced, all lay in the fu­ture. Yet here they all are, these losses some­how pre­fig­ured in the nar­ra­tor's dream.

My poem “Sub­ter­ranean” bears the same re­la­tion to the Proust pas­sage as a sin­gle shard does to a great mo­saic. Still, the re­sem­blances are strik­ing. One cru­cial par­al­lel is that in both po­ems, the cen­tral fig­ure, whether doomed to die or re­cently dead, is in an un­der­ground cham­ber; am­biva­lent fig­ures make their way down there to visit. The grand­mother in the dream both is and is not dead. She both can and can­not speak to her grand­son, who both does and does not want to visit her. Of course my tiny poem ac­com­mo­dates much less

an­guish, guilt, and am­biva­lence than does Proust's se­quence. In “Sub­ter­ranean,” the emo­tion is chilled, muted, as if the poem's speaker is de­ter­mined to be as dig­ni­fied as the re­cum­bent fig­ure she is vis­it­ing. Per­haps the lack of overt con­flict or guilt in my poem has to do with the fact that it looks for­ward to­ward a death rather than back at a death. Ret­ro­spec­tion is the real hot­house for guilt.

But there was some­thing else too. Reread­ing both the Proust pas­sage and my poem, I couldn't help be­ing struck by an­other di­men­sion in the nar­ra­tor's dream—a di­men­sion my poem re­ca­pit­u­lated in minia­ture. The en­tire se­quence also res­onated, as I was now able to see, with an ex­pe­ri­ence that in 1990 through 1992, the years of my mother's ill­ness and death, still lay years in the fu­ture. This was the tan­gle of emo­tional con­flicts sur­round­ing the process of in­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing a loved one—con­flicts that were to batter me through­out 2007 and to cul­mi­nate in my mov­ing Ge­orge to a de­men­tia fa­cil­ity early in 2008.

So here was an­other dilemma Proust turned out to un­der­stand with preter­nat­u­ral clar­ity. For the nar­ra­tor's dream mer­ci­lessly lays bare what it is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to call the night­mare logic of the sit­u­a­tion. How do we feel once our rel­a­tive—grand­mother, hus­band, the per­son now rou­tinely dubbed “loved one”—is in­stalled in “that lit­tle room which they have taken for her”? We feel con­fused and guilty. We want to visit, or feel that we ought to want to visit. We send money, not to the per­son her­self but to her at­ten­dant, so that we can re­as­sure our­selves that our rel­a­tive isn't lack­ing for small com­forts. Yet we also pro­foundly do NOT want to visit. In­deed, we do not want to think about the whole end­lessly dis­tress­ing sit­u­a­tion. Con­ve­niently, we can­not quite re­mem­ber the ad­dress of the fa­cil­ity, and the per­son who has that ad­dress some­how “can't re­mem­ber the ex­act num­ber of the av­enue.” Fur­ther­more, we tell our­selves, or some­one in au­thor­ity tells us, it would re­ally be bet­ter for us not to visit, from the point of view of the sick per­son; think­ing about us would only dis­tress them.

The il­log­i­cal­ity of these en­tan­gled con­tra­dic­tions per­fectly cap­tures the feel­ings that of­ten clus­ter around the prospect of vis­it­ing a fam­ily mem­ber who is in an in­sti­tu­tion. And Proust's in­sight also il­lu­mi­nates even more fun­da­men­tal ques­tions. Any­one who has a fam­ily mem­ber suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia will un­der­stand what I mean when I say that ap­par­ently sim­ple queries turn out to have no an­swers. How is she? Does he rec­og­nize you? These ought to be ques­tions to which the an­swer is a crisp Well or Not Well, or Yes or No, but they're not. The spec­tral sub­ter­ranean murk through which the nar­ra­tor's dream un­folds doesn't per­mit the clar­ity of an un­equiv­o­cal re­ply. Nei­ther does the murk of ad­vanc­ing de­men­tia.

Seek­ing an an­swer to the unan­swer­able ques­tion, the nar­ra­tor turns to his fa­ther in the dream. The fa­ther is in a po­si­tion of au­thor­ity; surely he must know.

“But tell me, you who know, it's not true that the dead have ceased to ex­ist. It can't pos­si­bly be true, in spite of what they say, be­cause grand­mother still ex­ists.” My fa­ther smiles a mourn­ful smile: “Oh, hardly at all, you know, hardly at all.”

Al­most any an­swer would be bet­ter than this qual­i­fied, hedg­ing eva­sive­ness.

But how­ever des­per­ately we long for one, there is no an­swer. It is sig­nif­i­cant that even the fa­ther, sup­pos­edly the per­son “who know[s],” refers to an­other fig­ure per­haps bet­ter placed to know: “Her nurse is well trained. We send her a lit­tle money from time to time, so that she can get your grand­mother any­thing she may need.” This sounds prac­ti­cal and re­as­sur­ing, but only a lit­tle ear­lier in the dream the nar­ra­tor has thought of his grand­mother and her at­ten­dant with a pang: “Oh God,” I said to my­self, “how wretched she must be in that lit­tle room which they have taken for her, no big­ger than what one would give to an old ser­vant, where she's all alone with the nurse they have put there to look af­ter her, from which she can­not stir, for she's still slightly paral­ysed and has al­ways re­fused to get up! She must think that I've for­got­ten her now that she's dead; how lonely she must be feel­ing, how de­serted! Oh, I must hurry to see her, I mustn't lose a minute, I can't wait for my fa­ther to come—but where is it? How can I have for­got­ten the ad­dress? Will she know me again, I won­der?”

I and the other peo­ple whose hus­bands or wives live at the 80th Street Res­i­dence know that such “old ser­vants”—the aides who care for our spouses day in and day out—know more than we do. But even they may be un­able or un­will­ing to an­swer ques­tions like “Does he rec­og­nize you?” For well over a year now, I have not been sure whether my hus­band rec­og­nizes me. But when I com­mented to Mil­dred, the sen­si­ble, ex­pe­ri­enced woman who sees a lot more of Ge­orge than I do, that when I kneel to tie my hus­band's shoelaces he never strikes at me, as he ap­par­ently does at some of the aides, she an­swered with no ap­par­ent irony, “That's be­cause he loves you.” So is love iden­ti­cal with recog­ni­tion? This is an­other ques­tion that ap­par­ently has no an­swer.

In his lu­mi­nous book Bring Me the Rhinoceros, John Tar­rant re­counts and com­ments upon the zen koan whose punch line, as it were, is the re­fusal of a sage to an­swer his dis­ci­ple's ques­tion, a ques­tion that one would ex­pect to have a yes or no an­swer. Master and pupil are at a funeral, and the ques­tion as to whether the body in the cof­fin is alive or dead ought to be an easy one. In fact it's hard to see why the stu­dent feels the need to ask it at all. But he does ask, and he doesn't get an an­swer.

He raised his hand and smashed it down on the cof­fin, Bang! He turned to Daowu and, though he had not planned what he would say, a ques­tion burst out. “Alive or dead?” In the small room his voice was loud, but Daowu didn't show the least sur­prise and an­swered without hes­i­ta­tion. “I'm not say­ing alive, I'm not say­ing dead.” Tak­ing their cue from Daowu, the shocked mourn­ers breathed out and re­turned to nor­malcy—tea and con­ver­sa­tion. The young daugh­ters were a lit­tle bit thrilled. They had heard of the strange be­hav­ior of peo­ple who were seek­ing en­light­en­ment and now they saw it. But Jianyuan couldn't com­pose him­self; his sense of the nor­mal had shifted. He no longer knew whether his ques­tion ap­plied to the corpse, or him­self, or both, but it was the main thing in his mind, the most im­por­tant thing of all, and he de­manded to know why Daowu wouldn't help him.

“Why not?” “I'm not say­ing! I'm not say­ing!”

When I first read this koan, in Tar­rant's ex­panded ver­sion, I found it mys­ti­fy­ing, mes­mer­iz­ing, and funny all at once. The very re­fusal to an­swer an ap­par­ently mat­ter-of-fact ques­tion seemed to pro­vide an an­swer of sorts, part of which might be that the ques­tion wasn't re­ally so sim­ple. This, as I un­der­stand it, is how koans are sup­posed to work. Here is what Tar­rant has to say about read­ers like me:

If this koan has cho­sen you, or called to you, it nat­u­rally be­longs with cer­tain other ques­tions, deep ques­tions, which then be­come yours. What hap­pens to me when I die? What hap­pens to me when those I love die? When some­one has died are they alive in my mind or dead? In what way are they still alive and in what way not? . . . Then there is a fam­ily of ques­tions about not say­ing: Why is it some­times bet­ter not to say?

I could add some more ques­tions to this use­ful list. When some­one has de­men­tia and to­tal apha­sia, are they alive in my mind or dead? What is the best way to think about them? Is there a best way, or sin­gle way?

Nor is it only a mat­ter of what hap­pens in­side one's own mind. What is the best way to talk about peo­ple who are nei­ther ev­i­dently alive nor ev­i­dently dead? Tar­rant's un­pack­ing of the koan made me re­al­ize why I get an­gry at peo­ple who ask about Ge­orge, and even an­grier at peo­ple who don't. The first group seems clue­less or insin­cere—they some­how never phrase the ques­tions right. The se­cond group seems heart­less.

It's true that in the im­par­tial­ity of my anger, I di­verge from the bi­fur­cated re­ac­tion of the nar­ra­tor's mother, a re­ac­tion of which we are told a lit­tle later in Proust's ac­count. The mother is ex­ag­ger­at­edly grate­ful to the friends who re­call her de­ceased mother and ex­ag­ger­at­edly wounded by those who fail to men­tion the dead woman. Still, fun­da­men­tally the mother and I are on the same page—a page in­scribed with what Proust de­scribes with sim­ple elo­quence as “that in­dif­fer­ence which we feel to­wards the dead.”

And ev­ery­thing that was in any way con­nected with my grand­mother was so pre­cious to her that she was deeply touched, and re­mem­bered ever af­ter­wards with grat­i­tude what the judge said to her, just as she was hurt and in­dig­nant that on the con­trary, the bar­ris­ter's wife had not a word to say in mem­ory of the dead woman. In re­al­ity, the judge cared no more about my grand­mother than the bar­ris­ter's wife. The af­fect­ing words of the one and the other's si­lence, for all that my mother put so vast a dis­tance be­tween then, were but al­ter­na­tive ways of ex­press­ing that in­dif­fer­ence which we feel to­wards the dead.

And if those dead are alive but de­mented, re­sponses are likely to in­clude just as much in­dif­fer­ence but a good deal more con­fu­sion. Per­haps my re­ply to those who ask me about Ge­orge's con­di­tion could be “I'm not say­ing! I'm not say­ing!” The only re­li­able truth here is that there is no right ques­tion and no right an­swer. The dark­ness is in­creas­ing, and the wind.

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